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Cabildo review at Arcola Theatre, London – ‘thrillingly sung’

The cast of Cabildo at the Arcola Theatre, London. Photo: Ali Wright
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Originally the name of a Spanish colonial council, the word ‘cabildo’ also denotes the buildings in which such institutions carried out their administrative tasks; a famous example still exists as a tourist site in New Orleans.

In Amy Beach’s only opera – written in 1932 but not performed until 1947, three years after her death – a group of tourists are being led around the New Orleans cabildo by a Barker (the eloquent Beru Tessema); but when Mary (an engaging Helen Stanley) is left behind by her unsympathetic husband Tom (an enraged Joseph Buckmaster), she is granted a ghostly vision of the past.

In it she sees the pirate and slave-seller Pierre Lafitte (played as morally deplorable but dashing by Alistair Sutherland) in prison, sustained by his ally Dominique You (the supportive Alexander Gebhard) and eventually freed by yet another ghostly presence, that of Lady Valerie (Alys Roberts in full gothic mode).

Dramatically the piece is unconvincing: a more experienced operatic composer might have opted for a stronger libretto. But Beach’s score has real virtues, its late-Romantic passion vividly brought out by the entire cast – indeed in some instances more nuance would be welcome; yet once again a small company demonstrates what fine voices there are out there, waiting for suitable employment.

This is another rare resuscitation from the Arcola’s enterprising Grimeborn Opera Festival. Using a somewhat revised text, Emma Jude Harris’ staging does its best by middling material, with Max Nicholson-Lailey’s costumes particularly evocative.

Scored for just three musicians, Beach’s skilful accompaniment is given a heartfelt reading by violinist Hatty Haynes, cellist Saran Davies and pianist John Warner.

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Amy Beach’s neglected, dramatically unsatisfying opera is given a thrillingly sung staging